PARK CITY, Utah — Park City may be an out of the way place in a not ordinarily glamorous state, but for 10 days in January, all roads in the cinema world lead there. Yet it’s not simply the sheer volume of movies and fans at the Sundance Film Festival — this year’s 117 features were culled from more than 3,800 submissions — that keeps up the momentum. It’s also that the festival organizers, ever determined to solidify Sundance’s position and expand its reach, are not averse to change.
Faced with the loss of one of its key venues, the Park City Racquet Club, due to renovations this year, the festival has commandeered the Redstone Theatre a few miles out of town. In addition, Sundance, which previously made five films available on-demand through its Sundance Selects label, this year is launching an initiative to bring films and filmmakers in the flesh to nine cities, including Los Angeles, on Jan. 27. And, concerned that newcomers to Park City might be overwhelmed, the festival has initiated “How to Fest” tours.
Sundance has also changed how the festival begins. Instead of the traditional single opening-night film Thursday, audiences will have the choice of five screenings, including one the best documentaries in the festival, James Marsh’s thoughtful and unnerving “Project Nim.”
Marsh, whose last film was “Man on Wire,” examines the celebrated chimpanzee Nim who was raised as a human to see if he could learn to communicate with sign language. This controversial experiment turned out to be a Rorschach test for the Homo sapiens involved, exposing complicated and unsettling human egos and emotions.
Sundance has upped its documentary quotient this year by starting a non-competition Documentary Premieres section for veteran directors. Among the best in this category is Liz Garbus’ “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” a drop-dead fascinating examination of how the American chess genius triumphed against the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky, then lost his mind. Hoping to build interest, the filmmakers have invited four expert players to Park City to take on all comers at “Grandmasters Chess Stations.”
Also excellent in this section are Steve James’ “The Interrupters,” an inspirational, three-hour-plus look at former gang members in Chicago who defuse violent situations on the streets. And no one who remembers the 1960s will want to miss Alex Gibney and Alison Elwood’s “Magic Bus,” an acid flashback of a movie compiled from the 40 hours of footage Ken Kesey and Co. shot on the LSD-fueled 1964 cross-country bus trip Tom Wolfe chronicled in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
For many festivalgoers, the U.S. dramatic competition (and its grand jury prize) is of great interest. The highlight here is Drake Doremus’ “Like Crazy,” a crackerjack love story about the longing of long-distance romance told with wonderful intimacy and breakout performances by Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin.
Also noteworthy for their fine sense of a particular setting are Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s “On the Ice,” which examines the difficult lives of Inupiaq teenagers in Barrow, Alaska, and “Circumstance,” Maryam Keshavarz’s Douglas Sirk-type melodrama about unsanctioned love in Iran.
Sure to cause talk is Azazel Jacobs’ “Terri,” a gently melancholy film about loneliness and hope revolving around a way overweight high school misfit who so doesn’t belong he wears pajamas to class. Jacob Wysocki is excellent as Terri, and John C. Reilly is his match as the administrator who takes an interest in him.
Reilly is just as good in a supporting role in “Cedar Rapids,” a good-humored black comedy in the Premieres section directed by Miguel Arteta from Phil Johnston’s script about insurance agents gone wild. Another highlight of that section is “Win Win,” from Tom McCarthy (“Station Agent,” “The Visitor”). Made with a peerless feeling for off-center comic reality, it stars Paul Giamatti as a man who cuts a moral corner and sees what happens. Deliciously, humanly complicated from start to finish.
The U.S. documentary competition is always one of the festival’s strengths, and never more so than this year, with films including the entertaining “Troubadours,” Morgan Neville’s look at the emergence of singer-songwriters exemplified by Carole King and James Taylor; Andrew Rossi’s informative “Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times”; and Yoav Potash’s blood-boiling “Crime After Crime,” an L.A. story of how infuriatingly self-protective law enforcement agencies can be when it comes to admitting mistakes and correcting serious injustices.
Two of the ultimately most uplifting films in the section sound like the most depressing. David Weissman’s “We Were Here” is a clear-eyed, soulful look at the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, with reflective survivors talking about how community members stepped up and weathered the storm individually and collectively.
Paul Richardson’s enormously moving “How to Die in Oregon” examines that state’s groundbreaking law allowing physician-assisted suicide. Focusing on a number of people considering that option, most especially a remarkable woman named Cody Curtis, the film unflinchingly illustrates what “death with dignity” really means.
Several competition documentaries focus on larger-than-life personalities and the worlds they create. Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion’s “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” brings us along on the unbelievable journey of a man who went from being one of the most savage killers in Liberia’s civil war to a minister seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.
Also on an exceptional life voyage is Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl’s “Buck.” The inspiration for the book “The Horse Whisperer,” Brannaman overcame a horrific childhood to do things with horses that beggar description.
Although Marshall Curry’s “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” chronicles the rise and fall of that controversial organization, it gains much of its considerable power because of its ability to illuminate the complexities behind the actions of activist Daniel McGowan. Yet another charismatic individual, tireless movie producer Roger Corman, is profiled with tremendous humor in Alex Stapleton’s “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.”
In the world documentary section, some of the most interesting films made by overseas directors focus on American issues. David Sington’s “The Flaw” is a lively, iconoclastic look at the current crisis in capitalism; Goran Hugo Olsson’s “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” makes fascinating use of footage of that movement shot by Swedish journalists; and Danfung Dennis’ “Hell and Back Again” has remarkable access to one seriously injured soldier in Afghanistan and on his return home to North Carolina.
Sundance’s foreign-language films often feature mature themes and characters that American independents do not. Among the most interesting this year are, from Israel, Yossi Madmony’s “Restoration,” and from Canada, Sebastien Pilote’s French-language “The Salesman.” On a different plane altogether is Japanese director Shunji Iwai’s spooky and unsettling “Vampire.” And Sundance would be a place to catch up with Danish director Susanne Bier’s exceptional “In a Better World,” sure to be among the five titles nominated for an Oscar for foreign-language film.